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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 3, 2004 17 years ago

Parlor Tricks

The 2nd District reverses an $8 million jury verdict, rejecting a claim that inertia caused a seat belt to unlatch.

Parlor Tricks

The 2nd District reverses an $8 million jury verdict, rejecting a claim that inertia caused a seat belt to unlatch.

aBy David R. Corder

Associate Editor

To accident reconstruction experts, the phenomenon is known as inertial unlatch. To automakers, itis nothing more than theory. Now count the 2nd District Court of Appeal among those that question claims inertia causes seat belts to unlatch during rollover accidents.

The state appellate court recently reversed an $8 million judgment against General Motors Corp. on grounds a Pinellas-Pasco Circuit judge improperly allowed jurors to view a videotape demonstration of inertial unlatch. In the Nov. 19 opinion, the three-judge panel also ordered 6th Circuit Judge Crockett Farnell to retry Carl D. Porrittis case against the Detroit automaker.

On behalf of the automaker, a team of Carlton Fields PA lawyers convinced the appellate court that scientific evidence does not support Porrittis claims. The team of Sylvia H. Walbolt, Wendy P. Lumish and Jeffrey A. Cohen relied on decades of tests and testimony that has failed to convince the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) a problem exists with certain seat belts during rollovers.

Nearly nine years ago, Porritt became paralyzed from the chest down after an automobile accident. While riding in a Chevrolet S-10 pickup, on the morning of his 31st birthday, a drunk driver ran into the truckis rear. The truck left the roadway, rolled and ejected Porritt.

About four years later, Porritt retained the Jacksonville firm of Abbott & Wiesenfeld PA to represent him. His lawyers presented compelling testimony. For instance, several witnesses testified they saw Porritt wearing a seat belt just prior to the accident.

Then the plaintiffis team introduced Charles Benedict, an accident reconstruction expert and president of Tallahassee-based Benedict Engineering Co. Inc., which specializes in the forensic reconstruction of transportation and industrial accidents.

Citing the theory of inertial unlatch, Benedict offered explanations about how Porrittis seat belt could have unlatched. Porrittis hip might have mashed against the back of the seat belt buckle, he testified. Or the impact force of the vehicle as it landed on the wheels could have resulted in inertia and a partial unlatch.

To augment his testimony, Benedict showed a video that purportedly simulated inertial unlatch. During one demonstration, the seat belt buckle unlatched as he struck the back of the buckle on the edge of a table. Other tests showed how the buckle unlatched when struck with a hand or a hammer.

On cross-examination, Benedict acknowledged the federal highway safety agency considers such demonstrations as nothing more than parlor tricks. In fact, the federal agency has repeatedly rejected independent efforts over the past several decades to introduce inertial unlatch as a motor vehicle safety problem.

One of the most recent efforts came a few years ago when the independent consulting firm of Syson-Hille & Associates filed a petition challenging then-new federal rules on seat belt assembles. In March 2001, according to a Federal Register notice, the highway safety agency rejected Syson-Hillis argument that certain buckle designs are likely to unlatch in side impact or rollover accidents.

During Porrittis trial, experts for General Motors testified such tests are unreliable because they do not simulate actual rollover conditions, the appellate decision states. Even Farnell said he thought the tests sounded ipretty hokey.i The trial judge acknowledged Benedictis tests might not meet the burden required by Frye v. United States (293 F. 1013), the standard for legally determining a scientific testis reliability. Nevertheless, he admitted the videotape as substantive evidence.

iUnder the Frye test for scientific reliability, the proponent of the evidence bears the burden to prove the general acceptance of the underlying scientific principle and the testing procedure used to apply the principle to the facts of the case,i 2nd DCA Judge Charles T. Canady wrote. iOur review of the evidence reveals that Porritt failed to show that a eclear majorityi of the members of the relevant scientific community ascribe validity to the tests as a methodology of providing that inertial unlatching occurs.i

Appellate Judges Carolyn K. Fulmer and Douglas A. Wallace concurred.

iWe therefore hold that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the videotape into evidence,i Canady wrote. i(A) judge cannot simply euse his discretion to decide that despite a plain lack of substantial similarity in conditions he will, nevertheless, admit the evidence.i

iBecause the videotape was highly prejudicial eit is reasonably probable that a result more favorable to (General Motors) would have been reached if the error had not been committed,i i he adds. iThe improper admission of the videotape thus eresulted in a miscarriage of justice,i which requires that the judgment be reversed and that a new trial be conducted.i

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